Friday, October 23, 2015

Spotlight on Fiction 2015

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

If the stories that Micah's grandfather told him are true . . . if there really is a place where an elephant named Big Jean can do long division, where a French vulture can tell the future, and where an illusionist can make you fell the frosty winds of Antarctica while you sitting in your chair . . . if Circus Mirandus is an actual circus . . . then "that [means] magic [is] real" . . .(17)  and maybe, just maybe, magic can save Micah's dying grandfather.  When Micah's grandfather, Ephraim Tuttle, visited Circus Mirandus as a boy, the Man Who Bends Light promised him a miracle.  He's been saving that miracle for a time when he really needs it, and that time is now.  Micah is certain that if he can get into the circus and talk to the Man Who Bends Light, the Lightbender will save his grandfather.

In alternating chapters, a family mystery slowly unfolds just as the tension in Micah's story builds, creating suspense that will keep readers turning pages right up to the end.  This story is just the right blend of the fantastic and the sometimes difficult realities of the real world.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen

The Nest came out just a couple of weeks ago, and it already has racked up five starred reviews.  It is deliciously creepy, not in a blood-and-gore kind of way, but in a get-inside-your-head kind of way.

Steven has been coping with anxiety and bad dreams for a while and now there is more tension at his house because his newborn brother has a rare congenital problem.  Even though his therapist assures him that "what happens in a dream stays inside the dream," Steven's latest dreams with creatures of light that promise to "make things better" seem all too real.  (110, 23)  And in some ways, he wants them to be real.

The first-person telling puts readers right into Steven's thoughts as he struggles to figure out what is a dream and what is reality.  That ambiguity makes this a psychological thriller that you'll read in one sitting.  (I did.)  Oh, and the villain is the most chilling I've met in a long time.  I bet it'll change the way you feel about wasps.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz describes her new book as a "good old-fashioned story" and that is exactly what it is.

Since her mother's death, 14-year-old Joan does all the woman's work on Steeple Farm, and it's hard work: she takes care of the chickens, cleans out the privy, cooks meals for her father and four brothers, does laundry, and puts food by.  When her father decrees that she can no longer attend school and then burns the few books she owns, Joan decides there is nothing left on Steeple Hill for her, and she goes to Baltimore to become a hired girl.  She has little idea what she is getting into, but she is desperate enough to take a chance on a better life.

In Baltimore she  begins a very different life working for a Jewish family.  While she enjoys the conveniences of electricity, hot and cold running water, a dumbwaiter, and a carpet sweeper, Joan works to learn the Jewish rules of kashrut and appease cranky Malka.  But it is the more universal experiences that change her.  She learns to respect people's differences.  She learns about men who are, thankfully, not all like her father, and gets her first kiss.  She learns about meddling (not a good idea to pass on a love sonnet you found to help a relationship along), heartbreak (things don't go well after that first kiss), and forgiveness.

Written as a series of Joan's diary entries, the story is set in 1911 and the relevant social issues of the time--women's rights, class division, religious prejudice, and labor rights--are addressed.  Historical details and content infuse seamlessly into the story; readers will feel like they've been picked up and placed right in Joan's world.

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